Let’s talk about abdominal strengthening! As I mentioned in my last post, core stabilization exercises are very popular these days. Strong abdominal muscles are valued for their function in protecting the back as well as for purely aesthetic reasons.
Unfortunately, it is confusing to figure out how to improve abdominal tone. There are so many opinions on which exercises are the best. Where do we begin?
The top abdominal exercise contenders
- Sit ups and crunches
- Plank pose
- Lying on back, lowering the legs (boat pose variations)
- Stability ball exercises
And the winner is…
Actually, the most effective way to tighten and strengthen our abdominals is simply to use them in all of our daily activities. Exercises can be helpful to improve our awareness and activation of the abdominals, but more importantly, we must teach our abs to activate when we push, pull and lift throughout the day.
Ask yourself: can you feel your abdominals working during the day? Can you feel them while performing your core stabilization exercises? If not, it is likely you are using other muscles to do what your abdominals should be doing. If your back muscles get tight, those are the muscles that are working instead.
Do not be discouraged if this is happening to you. It can be reversed.
You can “turn on” your abdominals
The first step is relaxing and stretching the overworked muscles. For back muscle tightness, I recommend lying on your back, pulling the knees to the chest. Massaging the back muscles also helps to lengthen out tight muscles, teaching them to stop contracting so easily. Next, try the sequence below.
Abdominal activation sequence
Step 1: Pelvic floor
For the abdominals to work most effectively, they must be supported from underneath. A thin sheath of tissue–the pelvic floor–connects the pubic bone to the tailbone. Activating them is the same thing as performing a kegel.
This pelvic floor activation and the energy that moves with it is called mula bandha. This is a good exercise to begin:
Lie on your back with the knees bent and feet on the wall, hands on your thighs. As you breathe in, allow the ribcage to expand. As you breathe out, pull up and in with the pelvic floor muscles, as if you were trying to slow the flow of urine. This is the kegel. The energy that pulls upward and inward is mula bandha.
As you continue to breathe out, pull the thighs up toward your hands, stopping the movement with your hands. Do not allow your pelvis to move. You should feel the pelvic floor and abdominals contract at the same time.
Step 2: Transverses abdominus
It is specifically the transversus abdominus (TvA) and not the rectus abdominus that we want contracting here. Your TvA is like your inner corset; its job is to hold everything in. If you were to contract the rectus abdominus instead, you would see your belly “pooch up” with the abdominal contraction. When the TvA contracts on the exhalation, the belly pulls inward. Try the exercise below to isolate the TvA.
You can keep your feet on the wall, or bring them to the floor for this step. Place your fingers on the insides of your hip bones where they stick out in the front. As you breathe out and perform the kegel, feel a muscle tightening gently under your fingers. This is the transverses abdominus.
Step 3: Rib cage
Now, if you still can’t feel your abdominals contracting, move your hands up onto the rib cage. Bring the hands in to find the infrasternal angle, which is where the two sides of the rib cage come together in the middle. Normally this angle should be less than 90 degrees. If it is wider than this, your abdominal muscles (specifically the external obliques) are too long and stretched out. Tightening the muscles makes this angle smaller.
After finding the infrasternal angle, perform the kegel again on the exhale. This time, concentrate on the fingers coming toward each other. As the ribs pull together, the spot on your back directly behind it should flatten on the floor.
Step 4: Apply to other movements
Once we can activate the abdominals, the next task is to apply the activation to other exercises and other daily movements. This takes some mindfulness, but it is not impossible! In my core stabilization post, you can see how to do it with the hands/knees position. We will discuss how to add to other movements in posts to come.